I Am Not Surprised By The Lack Of Action In Silver

  • Gold is the world’s reserve currency
  • Platinum was telling us gold is special
  • The silver-gold ratio is deviant, but the trend is your friend
  • I believe in mean reversion
  • Silver will have its day; it’s all about sentiment

I learned a lot about the silver market over my career at one of the world’s leading precious metals trading companies. At Phibro, which was a division of Salomon Brothers that became Citigroup, I was in charge of the global business. In the mid-1990s, together with a handful of other traders at the company, I constructed and executed a long silver position at prices under $5 per ounce that was larger than the infamous Hunt Brothers held in the late 1970s and 1980. While the Hunt’s used the futures market primarily, at Phibro, the vast majority of the long position was in physical form in vaults in Brooklyn, New York and near Heathrow Airport in London. At the peak, the proprietary position stood at over one-quarter of one-billion ounces of the metal. We believe that silver was too cheap at under $5, and in the long-term we were correct. The full story about the silver position is too long to write about in this article, but suffice to say, I learned a hell of a lot about liquidity in silver buying and selling what amounted $1.25 billion worth of the metal, at the time. At today’s price that massive position would be worth over $3.8 billion. 

The one thing I learned about the silver market is that the physical market is deep. A select group of market participants believes that silver is a highly manipulated commodity and that a cabal including JP Morgan holds the price down. I can assure you from my experience; it was not all that difficult to purchase or sell one-quarter of a billion ounces or 50,000 contracts, which is one-quarter of the total open interest in the COMEX futures market today. In 1995, the position amounted to over half the total number of open long and short positions. Buying or selling massive quantities of silver was not a problem in the mid-1990s, and the same holds today. 

I am not surprised over the lack of excitement in the silver market these days, as gold is acting as the ultimate reserve currency, while silver is not. 

Gold is the world’s reserve currency

Throughout history, both gold and silver had served as currency. Paper currencies, including the US dollar, had the precious metals as a backing which provides support for the legal tender. One of the most significant debates during the 1898 Presidential election in the United States between McKinley and Bryan was whether to back the dollar with gold or silver. McKinley and gold won that election. 

While there is no longer a gold standard in the world, central banks continue to hold the yellow metal as a part of foreign currency reserves. Governments rarely talk about gold, but over recent years, they have been net buyers of the metal. The US is the wealthiest nation in the world, and it has the largest gold reserves at over 8,000 metric tons. China and Russia have been increasing reserves as they vacuum in all domestic production and purchase gold bars on the international market. 

Recently, the World Gold Council and International Monetary Fund said that central banks continue to purchase the precious metal, The IMF revised its data for net purchases in April from 43 to 49 tons and said that central banks bought 247.3 metric tons of the metal so far in 2019, a 73% increase from the same period in 2018. 

The chart shows that while Russia and China continue to buy gold, other countries have also been adding to reserves. Only Qatar reduced its holdings in May as the nation sold 6.2 tons. 

The US dollar is the world’s leading reserve paper currency; gold continues to be the reserve that central banks treasure the most. The Bank of England sold half its reserves at the turn of this century at prices below the $300 per ounce level. At almost five times that value today, few governments appear likely to repeat that mistake. 

Gold plays a leading role in the world financial system, even though it remains a topic few officials care to discuss. The price of gold broke out to the upside in June after the US Fed told markets they plan to lower interest rates. The move above the 2016 high is a continuation of the golden bull market that began in the early 2000s in dollars and all currency terms. The price action in the other two most popular precious metals is a sign that only gold matters these days. While central banks may have caused the modern-day gold rush with accommodative monetary policy and a tidal wave of liquidity, they continue to bless gold as the ultimate means of exchange by their holdings. 

Platinum was telling us gold is special
Platinum used to go by the nickname as “rich person’s gold” because it typically commanded a premium to the yellow metal. However, that changed in 2014. 

Source: CQG
As the price of nearby platinum minus nearby gold futures shows, platinum had not traded at more than a $122 discount to gold since the mid-1970s until 2011 following the global financial crisis. Since 2014, platinum has traded at progressively lower prices compared to gold and was at just under the $590 discount level as of the close of business on Friday, July 12. The price action in platinum has been telling us that gold is the most precious of the two metals even though platinum is rarer and has more industrial applications on a per ounce produced basis. 

The silver-gold ratio is deviant, but the trend is your friend 

The platinum-gold spread is an example of how historical deviance can continue for prolonged periods. The price relationship between silver and gold dates back to at least 3000 BC when the first Egyptian Pharaoh Menes states that two and one-half parts silver equal one-part gold. The trend in that relationship has been deteriorating since then. 

Even over my lifetime, I have witnessed silver’s decline as a means of exchange compared to gold. My late grandfather called the change in his pocket silver, because the dimes and quarters contained the metal, in his day. 

Source: CQG
As the quarterly chart of the price of gold divided by the price of silver illustrates at over 93 ounces of silver value in each ounce of gold value, the ratio is at a modern-day high. However, on weekly and monthly charts, the ratio rose to over 100:1 in 1990 and 1991, so it has not increased to a new modern-day record level like the relationship between platinum and gold has. Silver and platinum are both historically inexpensive compared to gold, but that is because the official sector has validated gold’s position as a financial asset while the other two metals are simply commodities these days. 

The trend in the silver-gold ratio has made higher lows since 3000 BC when Menes put it at 2.5:1. In 1979-1980 when the Hunt’s helped silver get to over $50 per ounce, the ratio fell to 15.47:1, and in 2011 when gold rose to its nominal peak at $1920.70 and silver traded to $48.76 per ounce, the ratio made a higher low at just over 38:1. These days, the ratio is a lot closer to the historical high than the low. A change in the price relationship will depend on a shift in the market’s sentiment as silver is a metal that moves with the herd.  

I believe in mean reversion

Waiting for mean reversion can be painful as there are no rules when it comes to timing. Anyone who has dipped a toe in the water on the platinum-gold spread or silver-gold ratio knows that markets have a habit of extending dramatically and for prolonged periods when it comes to mean reversion. Perhaps the best example was the trade that sunk Long Term Capital Management in the late 1990s. The former Salomon Brothers arbitrage trades including two Nobel Prize-winning economists, a handful of Ivy League professors and some of the highest-paid traders on Wall Street at the time put on a massive mean reversion trade in Russian and other emerging market debt securities versus US Bonds. The risk position put the hedge fund out of business and almost sunk the global financial system, given the level of leverage in the trade. However, had the trade remained on the books, it did revert to the mean after it caused financial pain that was way past risk tolerance levels. 

I believe that platinum and silver will one day recover against the price of gold. Time will tell if that occurs on the up or the downside when it comes to prices. Different dynamics are at play in each spread. When it comes to silver, the price of the metal moves on herd behavior because it is the sentiment that drives silver more than most other assets. 

Silver will have its day; it’s all about sentiment

Fundamentals in the silver market are an enigma because the precious metal has no concrete production cost. In many commodities markets, when the price drops below the cost of extracting it from the crust of the earth or growing crops, producers typically reduce the amount of output. Since silver is a byproduct of other metal and ore production, even if the metal were to become worth a fraction of the current market price, producers would continue to sell. 

Silver has a long history as one of the most volatile metals when the price starts moving on the up or the downside. The potential for significant percentage gains causes speculators to flock to the market like bees to honey when the price begins to move. Given my experience of buying and selling one-quarter of one billion ounces over a relatively short period, the herd will need to come at the silver market with a vengeance as it did from 2008 through 2011 when the price rose from $8.40 to almost $50 per ounce. 

If the price of gold continues to rise, silver is likely to test its first level of technical resistance on the upside at $16.20 per ounce, the 2019 peak. 

Source: CQG
As the chart shows, silver has made lower highs since 2016 when the price found a peak at $21.095 per ounce. The most recent lower high was at $16.20 at the start of this year. A return of trend-following buying in the silver market depends on a successful rally above that level that ends the bearish technical pattern. Until then, the silver market holds no compelling reason for technical traders and investors to flock back to the metal. 

The good news is that the pattern of lower highs will eventually lead to a lower level that would trigger buying. I believe that if gold continues to make progress on the upside, the market will think about history and silver’s role as a precious metal, a store of value, and an inflation hedge. Even though the Fed and other central banks around the world are telling us that there is no inflation; the cost of living is going up, currency values are declining versus many assets, and one day gold’s little brother will surprise on the upside again like it did in the late 1970s and 2011. 

I am not surprised by the lack of bullish price action in the silver market. However, it would not surprise me if we woke up one morning and found the price appreciably higher and above the $16.20 level. A technical breakout in the silver market could trigger a herd of buying in the metal attracting speculators and investors. It may not happen all that often, but when the silver market gets going there is no other asset quite like the precious metal when it comes to percentage price moves.